Cover Feature: Jamie XX
Building on his acclaimed production work, stunning DJ sets and incredible tracks and remixes, Jamie xx is set to release his debut album. Something of a reluctant star, he’s nevertheless one of the most compelling figures, and exciting talents, in dance music today
Words: Chris Cottingham
In March 2014, The xx played a 10-night residency at the Park Avenue Armoury in New York that experimented with ideas of scale and intimacy. The Armoury is a huge space, but twice a night the band performed to just 45 people inside a small white box accessed by a series of tunnels. Enthusiastic reviews spoke of its clever exploration of the relationship between band and audience, an electrifying and intimate performance. Kanye West loved it. Also there were Jay Z, Beyoncé, Kim Kardashian, Anthony Hegarty and Madonna. It should have been a moment of triumph for Jamie xx.
But rather than bask in the glory, he couldn’t wait to get away. “I ended up hiding,” he says. “There were a lot of people hanging around. I wasn’t into it. I just wasn’t feeling it that day. I left without telling anyone – just disappeared.”
That’s Jamie xx all over. The 26-year-old Londoner, real name Jamie Smith, might be the most unlikely headlining DJ there is. He’s almost the anti-Kanye: intensely circumspect and diffident, someone who tries to dodge the spotlight that chases him. And yet he’s become one of electronic music’s most in-demand DJs thanks to singles such as ‘Far Nearer’ (2011) and ‘All Under One Roof Raving’ (2014). He produced the title track of Drake’s 2011 album ‘Take Care’, and ‘When It’s All Over’ from ‘Girl On Fire’ (2012) by Alicia Keys. At the age of just 21, Jamie produced ‘We’re New Here’ in collaboration with Gil Scott-Heron, an electronic reworking of the iconic jazz poet’s 2010 comeback album ‘I’m New Here’. In short, Jamie xx is huge. Oh, the irony.
In a cafe around the corner from his flat in East London, Smith reflects on this uncomfortable (for him) state of affairs over a cup of tea and a bowl of porridge. He’s dressed head to toe in black, as perhaps you’d guess, and he speaks so softly you have to strain to hear him over the clinking of cups and murmur of conversation. He’s explaining why his debut album is called ‘In Colour’. Turns out it’s a knowing nod towards The xx’s monochromatic identity and perceived seriousness.
“Everyone thinks The xx – and by extension me – are gloomy and dark,” he says. “But we’re not like that as people.”
Why do you think people perceive you that way?
“When we first started out we were teenagers making moody music, and people wanted us to look like moody teenagers. We try to be ourselves in
photoshoots, but looking at the ground and being moody is an easy thing to do.”
How does ‘In Colour’ compare with The XX?
“In The xx, Olly, Romy and I all have different tastes that overlap at times. When we write music together there are elements of all that in there. There’s a lot of discussion in the studio. Sometimes it gets to a point where we just can’t agree and we have to leave it. But when I make music, it’s just me. All the tracks on the album are things I never imagined for The xx; stuff I made on my own on the tour bus, because we can’t work on new stuff as a band while we’re on tour. It’s all ideas taken from the last six years. There was never an idea to do an album until six months ago.”
What happened six months ago that made you want to make a solo album?
“It was summer last year. We’d been off touring for a couple of months. I felt it was something I had to do at that moment. It was just me spending a couple
of weeks in the studio enjoying making music for myself again without being on tour. I had everything I love around me: London. Friends. I went to Plastic People a lot. I saw Floating Points DJ. All the kinds of things I’d been missing. I decided that instead of releasing single after single, I’d make an album. A lot of DJs just release 12-inches and that’s something I love, but it’s not really my take on music. I had to make something that was an album rather than a collection of tracks. An important part of the record is the flow and transition between tracks. That’s what makes it an album. A lot of people don’t listen to albums any more, but I do. They’ve always been very important to me.”
Were you nervous about releasing a solo album?
“I was really nervous! It’s almost like doing the debut again and having to deal with all the expectation. I’ve never lacked confidence in the music I’ve make, but I’ve sometimes doubted how people will see me because I’m this guy from an indie or pop background making dance music. I worry people don’t take me seriously. But then someone like Four Tet, who I used to listen to when I was 14, now wants to make a track with me [‘Seesaw’ from ‘In Colour’]. That gives me confidence.”
Rave, drum ‘n’ bass, garage, dubstep and pop: you can hear them all on ‘In Colour’. It’s an album steeped in 25 years of UK dance culture; one that only a UK producer could make. Opening track ‘Gosh’ is a mash-up of tectonic sub-bass, chopped-up breakbeats and samples of jungle MCs. Like Paul Woolford in Special Request mode, it’s a rave history lesson. Then fuzzy drones and a wailing synth slide in, elements that could come from an xx track, and take things in a different, poppier direction.
‘SeeSaw’ features Romy’s spooked, melancholy vocals floating over a thudding drum break and rippling digital melody. ‘Girl’, meanwhile, samples Freez’s 1983 hit ‘IOU’, twisting up the vocal and laying it over a chugging electro groove to stunning effect. All told, it’s a masterclass in how to make electronic music with depth and soul. It’s something to do with the fact that Smith has an obsessive’s range of musical knowledge, no doubt.
His parents were big soul fans, in particular of Stax Records. He was drawn to trip-hop such as RJD2’s 2002 album ‘Deadringer’ because of the way it sampled old soul tracks. He discovered electronica, such as ‘Eyen’ by Plaid, through skateboarding videos. Jamie had to be talked into joining The xx, mainly because he was reluctant to go on stage. These days, while not exactly a showman, he’s learned to enjoy the thrill of performing to, say, 50,000 people at Coachella. But he says there’s no way he could be frontman. He needs a barrier, whether it’s his xx bandmates or a DJ booth. Don’t expect a Jamie xx live show any time soon.
Smith’s first solo outing was in 2009, a trip-hop- influenced remix of ‘Pull My Heart Away’ by his XL label-mate Jack Peñate. He went on to remix ‘You’ve Got The Love’ by Florence And The Machine, ditching Florence’s distinctive power singing in favour of breathy vocals from his xx bandmates and a restrained, skippety sub-UK funky beat, a theme he returned to on his rework of ‘Rolling In The Deep’ by Adele. It was when he was asked to co-produce Gil Scott Heron’s ‘We’re New Here’ that Smith really came into his own, though. He carried it off like it was the easiest thing in the world, turning a whole new generation on to the 70s jazz poet responsible for ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’.
He modestly puts it down to the fact he was already a fan, thanks to his parent’s record collection. “I never actually worked with him in the studio,” he explains. “It was all done remotely, but we talked a lot. I didn’t think about the fact he’s such a legendary figure at the time. If I did it now I’d really struggle, because I’d be thinking about it too much.”
Is that something you do a lot – think about things too much?
“In the end I do, but not at the beginning. Starting a track is the most exciting thing about making music. I don’t really think about it at all. The thinking too much starts afterwards.”
And outside of music?
“Everyone thinks about things too much, don’t they?”
Do you think your music is very British?
“Definitely. I love all the Chicago and Detroit stuff. I like a lot of stuff on Dance Mania, but the British stuff is what I relate to. For example, the remix of ‘Rolling In The Deep’ came about because I was really into UK funky at the time. I did a set at Notting Hill Arts Club where I was playing UK funky records at 33 instead of 45bpm, kind of in a chopped ’n’ screwed way. People were coming up to the booth and going, ‘What are you doing? It’s the wrong speed!’ Everyone left, and they ended up shutting the club early. I wasn’t happy about it, but it did inspire me to do the Adele remix, which is basically slowed-down UK garage record.”
Dance music often doesn’t have any lyrics, or the lyrics are throwaway, whereas The xx are known for theirs…
“I’m not really a lyrics person. I like the abstraction of electronic music. It’s more about the melody. I can’t recite a whole xx song. I don’t think the other members will be offended by that. They know me well enough.”
When you DJ, you only play vinyl and USBs. Why?
“I started out playing vinyl. I just like it. I like having it with me. At my gigs there are a lot of people who come that don’t normally go to clubs. They are more used to seeing a band play live. Playing records is more of a spectacle; not so much when I’m playing in a proper club, but when I’m playing America. It’s almost like being at a gig. Playing vinyl helps with that, especially when you have people gawking at you instead of dancing. There’s more theatre to it.”
How does being in a band influence the kind of dance music you make?
“I just come at it from a different perspective. People from a rock or pop background make a different kind of dance music, something that’s more based on song structures. I can’t make those five-minute tracks where nothing happens, like a loop from Detroit. I can’t do that. I’ve tried, just to see if I can do it. I really love music like that, but it’s just not me.”
The Waterfront Congress Centre in Stockholm, venue for Scandinavian offshoot of Barcelona’s Sónar festival, is shiny and new and devoid of any of the low ceilings, dark corners and sticky floors of the UK club scene. A bit sterile, in fact. It’s hard to see how Jamie xx’s rave redux sound is going to translate, especially because it’s the first set he’s played in months – and he’s anxious. There’s an early misfire when he drops an old soul track which sounds flat in the cavernous space. He quickly readjusts towards a more peak-time vibe. Tracks from ‘In Colour’ feature prominently—‘Girl’, ‘Sleep Sound’ and ‘Loud Places’. The feel-it-in-your-guts bass and warm atmospheric drones of ‘Gosh’ sound epic. A tough gig, then, but he pulls it off.
You have to know your business to turn a difficult situation like that into winning proposition. Jamie may not have followed the tried-and-tested dance music path, but he’s put the hours in, he’s earned his stripes. It’s why, even though ‘In Colour’ is his debut, it doesn’t feel like it. He genuinely cares about the culture of dance music, too.
In addition to his vinyl- and CD-only policy, one of the things he plans to do in the near future is put together a sound system – he mentions James Murphy and Soulwax’s Espacio project as a reference – to take on tour with him. Because he plays a lot of vinyl, it’s hard to achieve the same volume as digital, something he says is even more difficult in the US. It’s not about making a grand statement; he just wants the music to sound as good as it can. There’s something brilliantly old-school about that.
He’s one of us, then, but, at the same time, it’s hard to imagine any one else in dance music doing something like Tree Of Codes, a contemporary ballet based on the artwork of the same name by US writer Jonathan Safran Foer. A three-way collaboration between Jamie, top flight choreographer Wayne McGregor and visual artist Olafur Eliasson, it was commissioned by the Manchester International Festival, where The xx played in 2013. Jamie has become a ballet fan as a result.
It’s that mix of UK dance history, a love of playing music to other people for its own sake, and the twists that come from his other life in The xx that make Jamie one of dance music’s most compelling figures. He doesn’t see it that way, saying that he feels part of electronic music but not the club scene. He’s wrong. In fact, Jamie xx stands for everything that’s good about spending hours lost in the groove. He can’t dodge that – even if he wants to.